James McLevy

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James McLevy (1796–1875) was a prominent detective in Edinburgh during the mid-19th century, and later an author of popular crime mysteries.


The son of a farmer, he was born in Ballymacnab in County Armagh, Ireland. McLevy later moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and became a builder's labourer before joining the police force in 1830.

In 1833 he became Edinburgh's first detective and handled 2,220 cases during his 30-year career, almost always securing a conviction. His fame was such that the UK Parliament asked for his advice on dealing with criminals and Mary Carpenter, the great social reformer, quoted him in her paper on dealing with convicts.

McLevy published a series of extremely popular books in the 1860s, including Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh, Sliding Scale of Life and The Disclosures of a Detective. It is sometimes suggested that his writings helped to inspire Arthur Conan Doyle. McLevy sought forensic advice from members of the medical faculty at the University of Edinburgh, where Conan Doyle later studied.

McLevy died in Edinburgh on 6 December 1873.[1]

In the late 1990s, the James McLevy Trophy, named after him, was donated by former Detective Superintendent John McGowan to recognise outstanding achievement in crime detection in Scotland.

In popular culture[edit]


As part of its Afternoon Drama programme, BBC Radio 4 has broadcast to date twelve series of dramas written by David Ashton and starring Brian Cox as McLevy, Siobhan Redmond as Jean Brash, Michael Perceval-Maxwell as Constable Martin Mulholland and David Ashton as Lieutenant Robert Roach. In the 1999 pilot play, Phyllis Logan played Jean and John Paul Hurley played Mulholland. Lieutenant Roach was not introduced until the actual first episode of Series One; in the pilot play, McLevy's superior was Lieutenant Moxey, with the change in command explained as Moxey having been "elevated" to The Haymarket (in the novel Shadow of the Serpent, the explanation is that Moxey "had left somewhat under a cloud and Roach had been swiftly drafted in from Haymarket to fill the gap ...").

Other recurring characters include:

  • Jessie Nairn (2000–2002, played by Tracey Wiles), Jean Brash's right-hand woman and "Keeper of Keys" of "The Happy Land" and "The Just Land" until she was stabbed to death by a hired killer.
  • Hannah Semple (2003–2012, 2015–present, played by Collette O'Neil), who took over as Jean's "Keeper of Keys"; in Series 9, she had to flee Leith after killing a deranged sword-wielding "client" to protect Jean but returned in Series 11.[2]
  • Constable Miller (2000–2003, played by Tom Smith), a rather inept constable who was killed in the line of duty preventing an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria; unfortunately, to McLevy's fury, because of the would-be assassin's identity, higher authorities swept the attempt under the carpet and the "official" version of Miller's death was that he had been stabbed to death by "a sneak thief". His stationhouse duties were taken over after his death by Constable Ballantyne, played by Finlay McLean.
  • "The Countess" (2002, played by Maureen Beattie), Jean Brash's chief rival in the brothel trade. During a power struggle between herself and Jean, she tried to have Jean framed for murder but was ultimately jailed herself as an accomplice to that murder; it was revealed in Series 5 that she died in prison.
  • Donald McIver (played by Andrew Neil), Hannah Semple's former boyfriend and an inveterate gambler who married Hannah in Series 5, but sadly was later shot and killed when a high-stakes card game he was playing in was held up by two men with a pistol.
  • Inspector Adam Dunsmore of the Haymarket district (played by Simon Tait in Series 5, later Forbes Masson in Series 11), later transferred to Princes Street; McLevy despises him as both an inefficient investigator and being more interested in furthering his own career than in solving crimes.
  • Chief Constable Murray Craddock (introduced in Series 10, played in Series 10 and 12 by Paul Young and by David Robb in Series 11), a self-righteous and intolerant man who is determined to purge Edinburgh (and especially Leith) of what he considers immorality (McLevy finally demonstrates how he feels about Craddock in the final episode of Series 12, "The Last Goodbye").[3]

While some of the series contain a thread connecting all of that series' stories into one storyline, the elements of each of the stories remain constant:

  • McLevy's single-minded pursuit of and for justice on his beat (the parish of Leith in the city of Edinburgh) no matter which class of people are involved;
  • His frustration with and contempt for "respectability" and its hypocrisy, especially when the truth about a crime is covered up to protect upper-class people involved but a crime committed by lower-class people is severely punished;
  • His often-stormy but complex (and in Series 10 "intimate" following events at the end of Series 7) relationship with Jean Brash, the owner and operator of "The Happy Land" (until it was burned down by vigilantes) and later "The Just Land" (so named to annoy McLevy), the "best bawdy-hoose" (brothel) in Edinburgh;
  • His equally complex working relationship (and friendship, although neither would ever admit to it) with Irish-born Constable Mulholland, McLevy's partner in investigations;
  • His clashes with his long-suffering, class- and politically-conscious and wife-dominated superior Lieutenant Roach (who nevertheless realized that McLevy's methods produced the desired results and therefore was not above turning a blind eye and occasionally even backing McLevy).

The historicity of the series is not always faultless. For example, an episode on 24 March 2015 involved a robbery of the British Linen Bank, although that bank did not obtain that title until 1906.[4]

Pilot 1999

1. P- 1 26 July 99 McLevy, retitled "Happy Land" in re-broadcasts (The Afternoon Play)

(A re-make of the Pilot episode entitled "Meet James McLevy" was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 8 October 2016, with "Lieutenant Roach" taking the place of "Lieutenant Moxey" and "Hannah Semple" taking a more prominent role in the story)[5]

1st Series 2000/01

2. 1- 1 Dec 21 00 For Unto Us
3. 1- 2 Dec 28 00 The Trophy Club
4. 1- 3 4 1 Jan The Second Shadow
5. 1- 4 11 1 Jan The Burning Question

2nd Series 2002

6. 2- 1 19 2 Jun A Good Walk Spoilt
7. 2- 2 26 2 Jun Wild Justice
8. 2- 3 3 2 Jul The Wild Spark
9. 2- 4 10 2 Jul Stab in the Back

3rd Series 2003

10. 3- 1 1 3 Dec Behind the Curtain
11. 3- 2 8 3 Dec A Voice from the Grave
12. 3- 3 15 3 Dec The Dark Shadow
13. 3- 4 22 3 Dec Servant of the Crown

4th Series 2006

14. 4- 1 3 6 Apr A Piece of Cake
15. 4- 2 10 6 Apr The Sea Change
16. 4- 3 17 6 Apr Sins of the Fathers
17. 4- 4 24 6 Apr The Devil's Disguise
18. 4- x 25 6 Dec Christmas Special

5th Series 2009

19. 5- 1 27 9 Jan To Keep Him Honest
20. 5- 2 3 9 Feb Picture of Innocence
21. 5- 3 10 9 Feb The Chosen One
22. 5- 4 17 9 Feb The Reckoning

6th Series 2009/10

23. 6- 1 21 9 Dec A Bolt From the Blue
24. 6- 2 28 9 Dec End of the Line
25. 6- 3 4, 10 January Jack O' Diamonds
26. 6- 4 11, 10 January Queen of Spades

7th series 2011

27. 7- 1 2, 11 March The Firebrand
28. 7- 2 9, 11 March Dead Reckoning
29. 7- 3 16, 11 March Prince of Darkness
30. 7- 4 23, 11 March A Distant Death

8th series 2011

31. 8- 1 29, 11 November The Blue Gown
32. 8- 2 6, 11 December Flesh and Blood
33. 8- 3 13, 11 December A Fine Deception
34. 8- 4 20, 11 December The Last Illusion

9th series 2012

35. 9- 1 26, 12 November A Dangerous Remedy
36. 9- 2 3, 12 December No Looking Back
37. 9- 3 10, 12 December A Pearl in the Oyster
38. 9- 4 17, 12 December The Cross-Roads

10th series 2014

39. 10- 1 18, 14 February A Different Path
40. 10- 2 25, 14 February The Cat's Claw
41. 10- 3 4, 14 March A Sore Convulsion
42. 10- 4 11, 14 March A Secret Life

11th series 2015/16[6]

43. 11- 1 15, 15 December A Price to Pay
44. 11- 2 22, 15 December The Seventh Veil
45. 11- 3 29, 15 December The Night Walker
46. 11- 4 5, 16 January The Devil Makes A Move

12th series 2016[7]

47. 12- 1 10, 16 October A Matter of Balance
48. 12- 2 11, 16 October A Man of Honour
49. 12- 3 12, 16 October He Who Waits
50. 12- 4 13, 16 October The Last Goodbye

All episodes of each series are currently available on both CD and audio download.[8]


David Ashton has continued McLevy's story in his 2006 book Shadow of the Serpent (ISBN 978-1846971938); following volumes include Fall From Grace (2007) (ISBN 978-1-84697-050-4), Trick of the Light (2009) (ISBN 978-1846972027), featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle, and most recently Nor Shall He Sleep (2012) (ISBN 978-1846972515), featuring Robert Louis Stevenson; all four novels are currently available in audio download format, read by David Ashton. McLevy's "nemesis" Jean Brash currently has two mysteries of her own to solve, with McLevy in a supporting role: Mistress of the Just Land (ISBN 978-1473632271)[9] and The Lost Daughter (ISBN 978-1473632295),[10] both currently available in both paperback and e-book format as well as audio recordings narrated by Siobhan Redmond.

Short stories[edit]

Two short stories, "No Rest for the Wicked"[11] and "A Child is Born",[12] were published in The Scotsman. Two more short stories, "End of the Line" and "The Painted Lady", are available for purchase in Amazon Kindle e-book format. All of these are also by David Ashton.


  1. ^ Entry for James McLevy in Statutory Register of Deaths for the District of Newington, City of Edinburgh (National Records of Scotland, ref. 685/6 765. See https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_stat_deaths/1577759; accessed 22 September 2017.
  2. ^ 14:15 (2015-12-29). "BBC Radio 4 - Drama, McLevy, The Night Walker". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-07-20.
  3. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07x6j4s
  4. ^ see British Linen Bank
  5. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07x12m1
  6. ^ 14:15 (2015-12-15). "BBC Radio 4 - Drama, McLevy, A Price to Pay". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-07-20.
  7. ^ 14:15 (2016-10-10). "BBC Radio 4 - Drama, McLevy, A Matter of Balance". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  8. ^ "david ashton - Audiobooks / Mystery / Crime, Thrillers & Mystery: Books". Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  9. ^ "Mistress of the Just Land: A Jean Brash Mystery 1: David Ashton: Amazon.co.uk: Books". Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  10. ^ "The Lost Daughter: A Jean Brash Mystery 2: David Ashton: Amazon.co.uk: Books". Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  11. ^ Hello (2010-01-01). "No rest for the wicked". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2016-07-20.
  12. ^ http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/a-child-is-born-1-1152433

External links[edit]